This morning I heard the news that the founder and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church was near death and receiving hospice care. For reasons not yet disclosed, the church he founded on exclusion and hatred has apparently removed him from membership, and the new leaders have barred family members who left (or were previously expelled from) the church from visiting.
I have always found the mission and tactics of the WBC to be morally repugnant. I will admit to thinking ill of this man in particular, given his place as leader and the cultish hue of the structure of the church. It is always frustrating to see abusive and manipulative behavior in churches and to see people spew hatred in the name of Christianity – or any faith tradition, really.
So this morning, with word of his imminent demise and admittance into a hospice program, I couldn’t help but wonder… What if I were called upon to serve as chaplain for that man? Could I do it, knowing that he had caused so much pain for so many people, including some that I care deeply about? What would it be like to offer care to someone so hurtful and hateful?
Many of the people I minister to are a mystery. They are unable to tell their own stories, whether due to dementia or some other neural decline prior to death. I may know something about them through notes in their charts – whatever nurses, social workers or other chaplains have gleaned in conversations with patients or their caregivers. I tend to believe the best – maybe more like assume the best – about people until I know otherwise. All of which means that any one of those people might be a Fred Phelps in their own way.
The honest truth is that I can be – and sometimes am – hurtful and hateful in my own way. We all steep in the evil and brokenness of this world every day. Lies and all manner of -isms seep in, sometimes under the guise of righteous indignation. And Lord knows I can get arrogant and overly sure of my way of understanding scripture and the world.
In the end, the job of the chaplain is to offer presence, hope and love. Some know that they thirst for those things, others don’t know they are thirsty until they get a taste of living water. Others will decline conversation, preferring to walk alone or draw on the strength of people and ideas they already know.
Sixteen or so hours later, I sit here again with the question- could I make that offer to someone I knew to be a homophobic, xenophobic, mean-spirited leader of a hate group disguised as a church? I hope so.